In 1858, the Treaty of Aigun formalised the division of Manchuria. Everything north of what the Russians call the Amur River and the Chinese the Heilongjiang, or Black Dragon River, was assigned to Russia. Two years later, more Manchu lands went north under the Treaty of Peking. In all, Russia acquired a million square kilometres of Outer Manchuria. It is a massive area. Stretching from the present Sino-Russian border to the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk, it includes what are now the major cities of the Russian Far East – Vladivostok, Khabarovsk and Blagoveshchensk – yet the tsar’s army barely had to fire a shot to attain it.
Faced with internal rebellions and in the midst of the Second Opium War with the British and French, the Qing dynasty was so enfeebled by the late 1850s that Russia was able to take Outer Manchuria simply by threatening Beijing. The once mighty Manchu, who had expanded China’s frontiers in the west and south-west, conceded the territory in the bitter knowledge that they were now unable to defend even their own homeland.
With the western colonial powers establishing themselves in China’s major ports in the aftermath of the Opium Wars, Russia’s takeover of northern Manchuria was supposed to be the prelude to it conquering all of Dongbei. The extension of the Trans-Siberian Railway, first to Harbin and then south to Port Arthur, now known as Lushun, was another step towards that goal. From 1897, Russian workers started arriving in Harbin, then not much more than a fishing village on the Songhua River, to build the new rail line. So many Russians came over the border that they dominated Harbin for the next couple of decades.
Russia’s dreams of turning Dongbei into a colony were dashed by its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. Instead, it would be Japan which occupied Manchuria from 1931 until the end of the Second World War. But Harbin remained primarily a Russian city. Like the Koreans who escaped the Japanese occupation of their country by moving to Yanbian during the same period, Russians sought refuge in Harbin from the chaos at home.
Well over 100,000 White Russians arrived after the Russian Revolution of 1917, joining 20,000 or so Russian Jews who had fled tsarist pogroms a decade earlier, making Harbin the largest community of Russians anywhere outside the old country. Far outnumbering the Chinese population, and with the new rail link boosting the local economy, the Russian residents, known as Harbinets, created a city which imitated distant St Petersburg and Moscow.
Harbin’s main shopping street, Zhongyang Dajie, offers an architectural history lesson. Art Nouveau hotels and department stores sit alongside baroque-style buildings, and once grand houses with large arched windows and iron balconies line the streets running off it. Former Russian Orthodox churches, as well as synagogues with window frames in the shape of the Star of David, are scattered throughout the city.
Along with other Chinese cities which have an extensive foreign heritage, such as Shanghai and Tianjin, Harbin is ambivalent about its cosmopolitan past. The buildings, even the crumbling houses which have been chopped into apartments, are much more distinctive and impressive than anything built in the communist era. Yet they are also evidence of how Harbin was more Russian than Chinese until 1949. To admire them is unpatriotic, and locals claim to be indifferent to structures like the former St Sophia Cathedral, regarding them only as unique backdrops for wedding photos.
Most Harbinets returned home after the Second World War or emigrated to the west. By the 1960s only a handful remained, although Harbin’s last Russian resident didn’t die until the early 1980s. But the city attracts many tourists from across the frontier – enough for the Chinese to assume that any foreigner in town is Russian. They come on shopping trips from Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, in search of a far wider and cheaper range of products than are available in the Russian Far East. There are also many Russians studying Mandarin, the language which may one day be the lingua franca of the former Outer Manchuria. Others arrive in search of work, prompted by the slump in the Far East’s economy that was precipitated by the break-up of the old USSR in 1991 and continues today.